Elimination Vs Suppression

Guernsey and Jersey responded to the pandemic in very different ways, but which is the right approach? Journalist Gary Burgess compares the two strategies...

FOUR cases spotted at 4.30pm on Friday. The information made public early Saturday morning with a bunch of ‘hands face space’ messaging. A full two-week lockdown announced at midday Saturday.

How’s that for hard and fast?

When, on Friday morning, the editor asked me to share a few thoughts to contrast the Guernsey and Jersey approaches to this pandemic, I began formulating a few words in my mind. And then… well, events, dear boy.

What happened at the weekend is actually a perfect illustration of the very different strategies in play.

Four cases PER DAY right now in Jersey would be considered brilliant news, and would barely raise an eyebrow of worry for most people as the definition of what’s normal has been shifted so dramatically in recent weeks. I regularly push back on social media to people who call the island’s case numbers ‘low’. I remind them they’re lower, but not low.

As I write this there are upwards of 200 active cases in the island, and with a presumed three cases for each one confirmed, that’s 600 people with the virus, two-thirds blissfully unaware and walking among us.

Another 700 or so are in isolation, caught up through the contact tracing process, and a school is having to send year groups home on alternate days as there simply aren’t enough teachers either well or free enough to be allowed to go to work.

Let’s start with some common ground: there are upsides and downsides to each islands’ approach.

Guernsey may (until this weekend) have had its internal economy open, but getting on and off the island has been quite a palaver, and the restrictions on return make it not worth the bother for many. The counter argument is, who cares? If 100% of normal life for the vast majority of people can continue, then happy days.

I think there are real merits to that argument.

CCA chair Deputy Peter Ferbrache, Director of Public Health Dr Nicola Brink and HSC president Deputy Al Brouard at the announcement of a second lockdown. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 29154925)

Jersey’s suppression, rather than elimination, approach is to keep case numbers low enough so as never to overwhelm the health service. In other words, accept the virus is in the community, that we’ll eventually eradicate the disease, though not the virus, through vaccination, and broadly cope in the meantime.

The reality of that is that, for much of last late summer and autumn, life was pretty normal in Jersey, the airport and harbour was open, bars and restaurants were doing their thing, and the hotel trade had a fair trickle of tourists to help fill their diminished coffers.

The downside is that if, or perhaps when, the case numbers begin to creep up, if you don’t act hard and fast (and we now know that’s the only way to respond) then you have a problem. And so Jersey did find itself in a pandemic pickle in early December.

Case numbers began rising in late November, but it was only at the end of the first week of December that alcohol-licensed hospitality was shut down, with more than a day’s notice to allow for one last super-spreader night out. There was also some really confusing guidance on what should happen with gatherings over Christmas, which we now know wasn’t even run past the island’s expert committee of medics and others before the chief minister announced it.

It was only later in December that the gatherings guidance was simplified and made stricter, and then non-essential retail and close contact businesses such as hair salons were shut down at close of play Christmas Eve.

In the meantime, the cases rose and rose. It peaked at around 1,000. At one point 5% of the island was forced into isolation. Many schools were unable to offer their normal service due to a lack of staff. The hospital had to cancel everything non-urgent.

Oh, and 30 people died in a month.

Please read that last sentence one more time.

Senator John Le Fondre, chief minister of Jersey. Picture by Rob Currie. (29157433)

It’s so easy to think of deaths as statistics, and I regularly have people messaging me saying, effectively, ‘oh they were at death’s door anyway’. That’s both grossly insensitive to the relatives of the dead, and is also untrue. Among them are hospital deaths who arrived testing negative and died testing positive. That, I suspect, will become a future scandal when the inquests take place.

Anyhow, back to the here and now. The upside of the Jersey approach has been the best of all worlds for most people. Everything pretty much business as usual (except for nightclubs and the events trade that relies on mass gatherings), until it wasn’t business as usual. And because the response wasn’t hard and fast, the restrictions we’ve had in place in one form or another since the start of December will be in place until at least March, and likely a lot longer.

This phase is described as ‘reconnecting the circuit-breaker’. It begins with some shops opening this week, hairdressers next week, possibly some hospitality next month, and no household mixing till well into springtime.

There are big financial differences, too. The economic contraction in 2020 for both islands is broadly similar, but the government spending is wildly different. Jersey having to restart its payroll co-funding in December and run it till at least April in one form or another. Grants to cover fixed costs for businesses for the next few months have just been announced. And there’s been another quarter of GST and social security contribution deferrals. It all adds up.

In fact, that support was £119m. in 2020, and there’s currently £109m. set aside in 2021. Add to that all the other facets of responding to the pandemic, and it’s currently expected to add up to £400m. That usually means you can safely round it up a little more, so let’s call it half a billion to be on the safe side, or nearly £5,000 for every man, woman and child in the island.

Another difference worth flagging is communication. I am constantly struck by the panel that appears at Guernsey’s press briefings, talking calmly and in human-speak, and taking unlimited questions from journalists which are generally followed by straight-talking answers from both politicians and senior civil servants. It’s an approach which fosters trust, helps create a sense of transparency, and means a suspicion things aren’t quite what they seem is avoided.

In Jersey, journalists are rationed to two questions each which immediately makes those questions more pointed as there’s such a limited opportunity to elicit information, and the responses regularly lack the kind of clarity you may be used to in Guernsey.

Some of that is about different kinds of personalities, but it is also illustrative of such different cultures within the corridors of power.

That stuff really does translate at these events.

And, as I do, if you then monitor the broad sentiment of the Facebook comments on the live press conference (yes, I know that’s a highly unscientific thing to do), then you’ll see Jersey’s are much more cynical or disbelieving of what they’re hearing while Guernsey’s seem to be full of gratitude and that Guernsey Together spirit which seems to have bonded the community.

I really don’t want you to conclude from this that it’s all bad in Jersey. It really isn’t. The testing system is phenomenal and can cope with huge numbers, the contact tracing team are doing a sterling job, the vaccination programme is up and running and getting through jabs like nobody’s business, and those hard-working medics and care workers in the hospital and elsewhere are keeping the show on the road in a fashion that constantly leaves me in awe.

Behind the scenes, public sector workers are keeping the wheels of government turning, the benefit claims are being processed, and an army of community volunteers is working under the umbrella of ‘Connect Me’ to ensure the most vulnerable get whatever they need when they need it, from food to a listening ear.

The verdict on who got this right is yet to come. It could well be a year, once the vaccinations are rolled out to a significant degree globally, before we can draw any meaningful conclusion.

All I can observe, at this point, is that day-to-day life in an ‘elimination zone’ (Guernsey, Isle of Man, New Zealand et al) seems a wonderful place to be, and so long as the response to the expected occasional outbreak is hard and fast, just as we’ve seen this weekend, then you should feel confident you’re in good hands.

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